During the 1920s and ‘30s, when the effort to create Great Smoky Mountains National Park had gained traction, various special interest groups, especially the agents of tourism, engaged in misguided efforts to
IN THE NICK OF TIME
downplay public concern for the relocation of hundreds of Smokies residents. One pro-park group from nearby Knoxville issued a pamphlet (a copy of which is stored in the national park’s archives) that made fallacious statements about those residents and their traditional culture.
How Joseph S.
The pamphlet asserted that twentieth century Smok-
Hall discovered the truth about
ies residents were living “in the 18th century”; that
Smokies women were weaving textiles “in ancient pat-
terns”; and that those residents were characterized by
“oddities of speech…current in Shakespeare’s time.” The first two statements echoed the words of William
Goodell Frost, who in an 1899 Atlantic Monthly article
referred to the natives of Appalachia as “our contemporary ancestors.” The pamphlet’s third statement, reflect-
BY T E D O L S O N
ing a belief widely held in American society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, suggested that speech in the Smokies, like other Appalachian diTop left: Joe Hall leaving the Hannah home on Cove Creek in Haywood County, NC, after recording the Hannah brothers (in the background). Bottom right: J. J. Gregory plays the fiddle for his grandson.
alects, was a remnant of an older language—Elizabethan English, which many Americans of that era believed was still lingering in more isolated pockets of Appalachia. This belief was perpetuated by late nineteenth century “local color” writers who, in nationally published fictional works set in the region, attributed the speech of Appalachian people to what then was the main point of reference for such metaphor-laden and idiom-rich language: the Elizabethan English of Shakespeare.
Discrediting the assertion that the people of Appalachia ever spoke Elizabethan English, linguist Michael Montgomery has convincingly demonstrated that the Appalachian dialects of English have never been trapped in the past but instead have consistently evolved, like any other American dialect, by incorporating influences from numerous linguistic sources. Several scholars have underscored this assertion by observing that Scots-Irish and German cultural influences were as vital to the region’s cultural matrix as was English culture. Nonetheless, ersatz Appalachian “hillbilly” speech is still perpetuated by the media, whether in the comic strip Snuffy Smith, the television show The Beverly Hillbillies, the film Deliverance, or in countless other media productions. Such contrived speech has persisted because actual Appalachian speech has never been comprehensively or systematically studied. Often referred to generally as “Appalachian English,” Appalachian speech formerly consisted of a number of regional dialects of English. In the past century or so, dialects of “Appalachian English” have steadily declined, casualties of Industrialization and Modernization; the latter historical processes hav-
that had fostered those dialects. A Depression-era linguist wishing to study a pre-industrial dialect of Appalachian English would have few places in which to work. Clearly, one of the most likely Appalachian locales in which a linguist might work was in the Smokies. There, immediately before the displacement of Smokies’ residents to create the park, hundreds of people maintained a way of life that some thought to be relatively unchanged from that of their ancestors. Many such residents retained the regionally distinctive dialect that had been spoken within the Smokies since the early days of European settlement; but because of their approaching displacement, that dialect would soon be assimilated into mainstream American speech. Some Smokies residents were imminently going to be relocated to towns and cities in which they would not be able to practice their former rural way of life. As they, their children, and their grandchildren would acquire new skills to adapt to their changed environment, former Smokies residents would no longer use many aspects of their traditional culture, such as their unique dialect of Appalachian English. The linguist who would document the dialect associated with the pre-park Smokies was Joseph Sargent Hall. In 1937, the National Park Service hired Hall—who was then a graduate student in linguistics at Columbia University and who was reared in the western U.S.—to document the speech of the people being displaced to create Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So that the linguist might continue this project unconstrained by financial problems, the new park’s administration hired Hall temporarily, placing him on the payroll of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and providing him with sound recordUncle Steve Woody shares a bear hunting story at the Woody farm in Cataloochee, 1939. ing equipment. Such financial and ing had a dramatic homogenizing effect on Appalachian moral support, combined with Hall’s holistic approach to traditional culture. research, allowed the linguist to record the Smokies’ dialect In the early twentieth century, untrained amateur linof Appalachian English as well as a wide range of verbal guists tended to concur with “local color” writers that Apculture traditions that had been passed down for generapalachia harbored vestiges of Elizabethan English; hence, tions by means of that dialect. efforts to document Appalachian regional speech during that Arriving in the Smokies during June 1937 at the age of era were seriously flawed. Since portable recording machines 30, Hall spent that summer visiting local residents and docuwere not available until the 1930s, the earliest linguists to menting their speech, ultimately filling four notebooks of work in Appalachia documented samples of speech by hand, transcribed linguistic material. Realizing the significance of which often resulted in linguistically inaccurate written tranhis 1937 fieldwork and recognizing there was much more scriptions of dialectical speech. Unfortunately, by the time documentation to do in the Smokies, Hall returned there in portable—and more accurate—recording machines were inthe summer of 1939. Interviewing a wide range of people troduced, the encroachment of industrialization had begun over the next seven months, Hall produced ten further noteto have a strongly corrosive effect on Appalachia’s dialects. books filled with written observations from his fieldwork; he By then, few Appalachian areas still sheltered distinctive subalso utilized what was then state-of-the-art sound recording regional dialects or the regionally distinctive ways of life equipment in order to permanently preserve the voices of
Smokies residents. Hall was granted use of a truck to transport that bulky equipment to the places where people lived or worked. Hall’s objective was to document the “natural” speech of Smokies-area people in their everyday lives, and accordingly he encouraged informants to say whatever they wished, on any topic. Hence, Hall’s 1939 recordings are valuable today because they document a range of verbal lore: traditional sayings, songs, and hunting tales. A 1939 photograph depicts Hall beside a pick-up truck that was hauling in its bed a Garwick recording machine; operated by cables attached to a truck battery. The Garwick took up practically the whole bed of the pick-up. Utilizing this machine, Hall made approximately 90 aluminum disc recordings that contained samples of speech and music. Also during his 1939 stint in the Smokies, Hall used an Allied recording machine powered by a battery pack to produce 70 acetate discs, which likewise recorded speech and music. In his “Preface” to an unpublished manuscript comprised of hunting tales he had documented in the Smokies, Hall summarized the perimeters of his late-1930s fieldwork, stating that he hoped “to collect and preserve records of the local culture before the few remaining people were scattered and thinned further by circumstances and time.” During his visits with Smokies residents, Hall lodged with local families or at Civilian Conservation Corps camps. CCC and National Park Service personnel recommended to Hall people he might interview, and CCC employees often played vital roles in the fieldwork process, whether driving the truck for Hall, carrying equipment, or assisting with interviews. When staying with locals, Hall participated in the lives of his hosts, contributing labor around the house and yard, attending church services and family reunions, and joining men on hunting and fishing trips. Recognizing that further documentation was necessary to complete the project he had started, Hall returned to the Smokies during the summers of 1940 and 1941 to make further recordings and to take additional notes. By this time, Hall was writing his dissertation for Columbia University on the phonetics of Smokies’ speech, which compelled him to draw heavily from his fieldwork. In 1942, Hall’s dissertation was published by the American Dialect Society as a monograph entitled The Phonetics of Great Smoky Mountain Speech. Hall had planned to write a more comprehensive study of Smokies speech, but his work took him to California, where he taught for the remainder of his academic career at Pasadena City College. Although his geographical distance rendered the latter project difficult to finish, Hall nonetheless visited the Smokies several more times over the next three decades. He continued to conduct fieldwork among former residents of the Smokies and to make recordings of their speech and music (after 1953, he would utilize a highly portable reel-toreel tape recorder during his collecting trips, though by this time it was clear that the traditional culture of the Smokies was in swift decline).
As the park was being created in the 1930s, the Feisty Mrs. park’s administrators enClementine Enloe couraged Hall to undertake his fieldwork because allowed Dr. Hall to they recognized the importance of such a projphotograph her ect—even though they realized the recordings after he offered her would preserve for posa box of snuff. terity expressions of anger towards governOnce the snuff box mental authorities. In the interviews he conducted in was safely tucked the Smokies, Hall did eninto her shirt, the counter strong frustrations among his contacts, yet the photo was taken. linguist neither judged nor censored them; instead, he let them speak their minds about being displaced. Linguists of the Depression Era would typically direct their interviews along strict lines of protocol—the usual process of their speech-gathering involved asking interviewees to recite standardized passages of text carefully constructed to cull particular aspects of speech from those informants. Hall did employ that method, yet in his effort to document “natural” speech, Hall preferred to encourage his Smokies contacts to talk freely about whatever concerned them most. Accordingly, he invited his interviewees to share personal reflections as well as traditional stories, songs, sayings, and jokes. Hall’s documentation of Smokies speech not only constitutes a trustworthy study of one dialect of Appalachian English, but also serves as a detailed record of many aspects of traditional Smokies culture. Hall eventually incor-
At left: Jim Proffitt and ardent fan Grace Newman; Top right: L. T. McCarter poses with his fiddle; Bottom right: The forthcoming release of a selection of Hall’s recordings, produced by Great Smoky Mountains Association.
porated portions of his fieldwork into four books published during his lifetime: the aforementioned 1942 monograph, and three self-published folklore collections: Smoky Mountain Folks and Their Lore (1960), Sayings from Old Smoky (1972), and Yarns and Tales from Old Smoky (1978). All four books have long been out of print and were never widely distributed. The three later books were written in the “popular folklore” style, and though they did not generate interest among academic linguists or folklorists, they appealed to “general interest” readers, including some of the people who when young had been displaced by the park. Hall passed away in 1992, but much of his previously unpublished fieldwork on Smokies speech (which included over 1,500 pages of written notes) was finally published in 2004 as the award-winning reference book The Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English (the University of Tennessee Press), meticulously edited by linguist Michael Montgomery. In addition to the Smokies speech and verbal lore (sayings, riddles, and tales) that he collected, Hall recorded numerous ballads, songs, and instrumental tunes performed by a wide range of musicians. The Depression-Era music
documented by Hall in the Smokies included numerous traditional ballads (i.e., narrative songs). Many of the ballads then sung in the Smokies either were transported there by emigrants from the British Isles (such as “The Brown Girl” and “The Cherry Tree Carol”) or were composed entirely within the New World (such as “Jesse James” and the local ballad “The Big Bend Killing”). Hall also recorded numerous “lyric folk songs”—traditional songs that stressed emotional rather than narrative elements (some were of British origination, including “Down in the Willow Garden,” but many more were distinctly Appalachian, such as “Ground Hog” and “On Top of Old Smoky”). Additionally, Hall documented Smokies musicians singing mid-nineteenth century minstrel songs (including “Old Joe Clark”); African American blues-based ballads and songs (“John Henry” and “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”); sentimental nineteenth century “parlor” songs (“Home Sweet Home”); nineteenth century Baptist hymns (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”) and twentieth century commercial white gospel songs (“Where the Soul of Man Never Dies”). Smokies musicians also performed for Hall various traditional instrumental tunes that were played on solo fiddle
(“Bonaparte’s Retreat”), as fiddle-banjo duets (“Soldier’s Joy” and “Cripple Creek”), or in combinations of several stringed instruments (including such stringband favorites as “Down Yonder” and “Cackling Hen”). As Hall discovered, the Depression-Era music repertoire in the Smokies included many newer commercial “hillbilly” songs learned from 78 rpm records or from songbooks. Indeed, by the 1930s many homes across the Smokies boasted record-players and radios. Hall recorded local musicians singing such national hits by Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, the Callahan Brothers, and Roy Acuff. This music represents a snapshot in time when musical traditions and musical tastes were very rapidly changing. Despite the fact that Hall did not specifically focus on collecting music, his fieldwork provides an excellent cross-section of the music traditions present in the Smokies before the founding of the park. Taken together, Hall’s music recordings showcase the various forms of traditional music once performed beside the hearths, on the porches, or in the churches of pre-park Smokies’ residents. To commemorate the importance of Hall’s work in documenting music traditions from the Smokies, a CD anthology of selected music recordings from Hall’s 1939 fieldwork was produced by Great Smoky Mountains Association. This will be the first opportunity for most people to hear what Hall heard in the Smokies during his early collecting trips, as his many recordings have been previously stored, preserved (though largely unheard), in archives. Those wishing to hear more of Hall’s recordings of music and other aspects of verbal folklore may visit the three places where those recordings are currently housed: the park’s archives in Gatlinburg, Tennessee; the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee; and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. To prevent damage to the original acetate and aluminum discs and reel-to-reel tapes, the archivists who are safeguarding Hall’s recordings have wisely undertaken the process of transferring those early recordings to tape and digital formats. Listening to Hall’s recordings today illuminates the fact that speech in Appalachia has changed markedly since the 1930s (many of the people that Hall recorded in the Smokies were born before the American Civil War). One of Hall’s 1939 recordings, for instance, preserves the voice of an aged man whose speech reflects the strong Scots-Irish influence upon the region’s culture. This man’s resonant, lilting voice sounds more “Scottish” than “Southern,” and in its creative evocation of the Smokies’ landscape the man’s speech certainly does not reflect the media’s stereotypical depiction of Appalachian speech as a “hillbilly” dialect. Transcribing such speech poses difficulties—it is a challenge to accurately represent in written language a dialect’s uniqueness while avoiding stereotype-laden “eye-dialect.” Hall’s efforts in this regard were generally successful. For example, Hall’s book Smoky Mountain Folks and Their Lore features a written transcription
of a hunting tale told to Hall in 1939 by a former resident of the Smokies, Bill Barnes. In this tale, Barnes describes a fight between his father (Uncle Tom Barnes) and a bear. Hall included the tale in his book because of its “unusual dramatic effect” and its “simple but vivid imagery,” and the published transcription illustrates these qualities: My father was drivin’ some cattle…an’ he come up to a party had been fightin’ a bear with dogs, an’ it was eaten’ up their dogs in a laurel bed. He axed the party fer a gun to go down an’ kill that bear. An’ there wasn’t a man that had loaded powder or a loaded gun. He couldn’t get anything to kill it with. An’ it was just eatin’ their dogs up….An’ he run up an’ stobbed his knife into it an’ cut a big long gash plumb to the holler of the bear. An’ the bear wheeled on ‘im an’ he said it ‘peared like he could feel it a-bitin’ ‘im nearly. He could hear it poppin’ its teeth…. He took a run-ago ‘an run his arm into that hole he cut into it, an’ run it right up about his heart an’ give it a yank or two, an’ that bear sunk down… When Hall first conducted fieldwork in the Smokies, hunting had been prohibited there for several years. He observed that Despite the fact Smokies residents had continued to tell hunting tales that Hall did not in the Smokies in order to affirm their own and specifically focus their ancestors’ way of on collecting life—and to acknowledge and commemomusic, his fieldrate its passing. The dialectical work provides an speech, the musical excellent crosspieces, and the hunting stories that section of the Hall encountered in the Smokies—colmusic traditions lected from over present in the 100 different informants—will never Smokies before again be heard… except in the recordings that the founding of Hall left us. O
the park. Ted Olson is a writer, musician, and professor of English and Appalachian Culture at East Tennessee State University. He has worked as a park ranger on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and is the author of Blue Ridge Folklife and a co-author of Hiking Trails of the Smokies.
Published on Sep 17, 2010